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California and the West

'Border Czar' Ends a Highly Visible Reign

Immigration: U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin is credited with crackdown that smoothed the workings of state's frontier with Mexico. Still, big problems remain.


SAN DIEGO — The departure of the nation's first "border czar" in many ways marks the end of a clamorous chapter along California's frontier with Mexico. Title it "The Crackdown."

The next chapter awaits key new characters on the U.S. side, and it is unclear if the high-profile job of overseeing the country's southern border for the Clinton administration will be based here anymore. But there is little doubt that the story setting is starkly different--and the decibel level lower--than when the border was thrust onto the nation's front burner a few years ago.

To the many admirers of Alan Bersin, who resigned June 15 as U.S. attorney for San Diego and Imperial counties to run the San Diego public schools, the changes on the border are as irrefutable as before-and-after pictures. Fans credit Bersin, serving as the border's top cop and figurehead, with much of the transformation.

Canyons once crowded with illegal crossers are empty of all but sturdy new fences and the border agents who have poured into the region by the hundreds. Migrants no longer sprint en masse through the San Ysidro port of entry onto freeways. Commuters crossing legally face half the wait they endured before Bersin was appointed the administration's border point man in 1995.

"Things have changed greatly," said Imperial Beach homeowner William H. Adams, who seldom sees illegal migrants troop through his neighborhood anymore.

Officials on both sides of the border boast of unprecedented cooperation in regional law enforcement and other matters, in part because of wider latitude granted by the governments of both countries. Also of help was Bersin's budding friendship with the Mexican consul general in San Diego, Luis Herrera-Lasso. The new approach prompted formation of cross-border committees on issues including management of the ports of entry, water supply and migrant safety.

"The border is working better today for the region than most people ever remember it working," said Chuck Nathanson, who heads San Diego Dialogue, a research group on regional border issues.

That is not to say the California border is cured of the problems that attracted national notice. Arrests of undocumented immigrants in San Diego are on pace for an 18-year low, but nonetheless will probably exceed 200,000 this year. Illegal immigration in the county's rural eastern reaches and agricultural Imperial County has soared. Drug smuggling also remains rampant, and long-standing police corruption in Mexico is still a formidable barrier to joint law enforcement efforts.

Skeptics contend that the hard line on illegal immigration, launched in San Diego four years ago as Operation Gatekeeper, has steered desperate migrants into the bleak and often deadly back country. Rights advocates say the crackdown has resulted in unfair and sometimes brutal treatment of migrants.

How much responsibility for the gains or flaws rests with Bersin, a 51-year-old Democrat and longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton? That is a matter of some debate, revolving around such intangibles as the power of his lofty administration connections, his considerable public relations acumen and, as in all things political, the simple matter of timing. One thing is for sure: The images of Bersin and the border became inextricably linked.

As U.S. attorney, Bersin held formal power that was mainly prosecutorial. He changed policies to bear down on repeat border crossers suspected of being smugglers, sparking criticism that noncriminal "economic migrants" would suffer most. He shifted the emphasis of drug prosecution to larger smuggling cases, leaving some cases involving smaller quantities to the district attorney. Under certain conditions, cases involving Mexican citizens are handled administratively as deportation matters, laying the groundwork for more severe charges if the suspects return.

But as Atty. Gen. Janet Reno's special representative for Southwest border issues (Bersin never liked the catchier "border czar" tag adopted by the media), he enjoyed a broad, if largely symbolic, mandate and a bully pulpit. Bersin was an aggressive border advocate, officials say, prodding Washington and coaxing a sometimes-fractious array of U.S. agencies into shared action on matters such as reducing waits at the border crossing.

Savvy about the media, Bersin often took to the airwaves, appearing regularly on Tijuana radio and television. A favored theme was the shared binational region he called "San Tijuana." Bersin, who has known Clinton since they were Rhodes scholars in the late 1960s, argued that order on the border meant safer living for residents on both sides. He frequently cited falling crime rates in San Diego since the stricter border enforcement.

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